Trials are temporary. In the midst of trying times, the search for the strength to make it through can be elusive. When it’s feeling like our world is falling apart, we look for answers and a way out, but our real hope is in looking back, looking up, and looking within. The writer of Hebrews writes to weary churches beleaguered by persecution for their faith. They were going through intense trials, losing their property, friendships, freedom, and their lives for refusing to denounce Jesus. The approach in Hebrews teaches us how we can overcome even the fiercest trials.
When we reflect on past triumphs, ours or another’s, we make space for faith and hope to grow. Hebrews 11 features an extensive list of heroines and heroes of the faith who trust God in the face of hostility and impossible circumstances. The writer reminds us of what God has done in our shared heritage of faith to make a point: God hasn’t changed. He was present in the midst of adversity in the past and he is here with us today. After listing the impressive way God responded to Enoch, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and others, the author summarizes his message emphatically:
And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead, raised to life again. (Hebrews 11:32-35a)
We are pointed to the past, to give us hope for the future. God is willing and able to guide us through our trials, and he has the résumé to prove it. Looking back reminds us trials are temporary, and we can overcome them.
No temptation has come upon you except what is common to humanity. But God is faithful; he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
God makes a way for us to overcome our trials. He empowers us to persevere in the midst of them, but our challenge is that we often forget his track record. Hebrews reminds us of God’s faithfulness in the collective and individual past so we can trust him in our present. But victory doesn’t always look the way we anticipate. The same chapter that lists miraculous divine rescues, also reveals profound tragedies.
Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. (Hebrews 11:35b)
While encouraging these persecuted believers, the writer doesn’t attempt to deceive them into thinking everything will work out as they might hope in the present. God is with us as he was with them, and yet his plan does involve suffering sometimes. Why would a letter meant to encourage these people include this sobering reality? Because a higher truth provides comfort and encouragement to us:
Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
In addition to looking back on God’s faithfulness, we are encouraged to look up to see his plan and personal investment in us. When we look up, we see our Savior who persevered through the torture, humiliation, and death of the cross, and now is glorified. We see that he did this “for the joy that lay before him”. Jesus could endure his trial because he focused on a greater joy, his presence with the Father, and eternal triumph (for him and us).
Our focus determines our future. In the midst of tests, we are encouraged to “keep our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith”. When we keep our eyes on him we rise up, but when we stay our gaze on our circumstances, we sink into despair and fear. Looking back and looking up gives us hope. We also look inward to locate our strength–which is actually God’s strength in us.
In the midst of attempting to restore a demolished and defeated Jerusalem, Nehemiah faces overwhelming obstacles when he and his people attempt to rebuild the wall for protection around their land. They were colonized by Persia, so they had no power to make their own decisions as a nation. The people were antagonized by local leaders, such as Sanballat and Tobiah, whose top priority became to cut God’s people off from their land and prosperity. The Israelites were demoralized by their oppression. Overwhelmed with current crisis, they felt shame, sorrow, fear, and powerlessness. When they are threatened by violence, many are ready to give up hope, but Nehemiah tells them: The joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 8:10). Nehemiah understands that their faith in God could also be the source of their joy, and could empower them to overcome their deficiencies. When we rejoice in God’s character in the midst of our trials, a previously unknown strength and power rises within us. The people respond to Nehemiah’s call, and the city’s wall is rebuilt in under 60 days. However, grief often precedes growth, and we see that Nehemiah acknowledges the loss and suffering of his people when he first hears of how his people are living (Nehemiah 1:4). He wades into the complex pain of his people’s oppression with eyes wide, searching for God’s presence. He recognizes that active hope means looking back on what God has done and promised (Nehemiah 1:7-10), looking up to see God intervene (Nehemiah 2:4), and looking within to identify the strength God has given him (Nehemiah 8:10). After looking back, looking up and looking in, he can step out in faith, believing and rejoicing in God’s rescue. When we follow Nehemiah’s pattern, we prepare ourselves to overcome any trial.
Who are your “cloud of witnesses” who modeled faith in God with inspiring results?
How can we experience joy even if things may not work out like we hope?
What does Jesus teach us about overcoming trials in Hebrews 12:1-2?
Take some time to look back and celebrate how God has moved in your life, then ask for intervention in your current circumstances.
Suggested Worship Meditation:
That’s when I close my eyes
Take some time and realize
That He was always there
The truth is He never left
That is what the Spirit says
And I believe it so
I never have to be alone
Cece Winans, Never Have To Be Alone
Written by Rasool Berry
Edited by Christina Utley